Sunday, 10 October 2010

Foreigners & Exiles

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’
These words came to my mind as I read today's passage from Luke's Gospel (17:11-19). They come from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, sung by a character who is an exile in the Forest of Ardenne.

Luke tells us that Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to show his gratitude. ‘Were not ten made clean?’, says Jesus, ‘But the other nine, where are they?’

I fear I’m more like the nine ungrateful than the tenth grateful leper – and I dare say you are too. How many of us do not owe an immense debt to someone else? Perhaps to a friend, a teacher, a doctor, who has done something for us that we could not possibly repay. Or to our parents - a week’s neglect on their part would have killed us when we were new born. Yet how often do we forget to express our gratitude, how often do we not even bother to say thank you?

And we are often ungrateful to God as well. He has blessed us with so much: he has given us a wonderful world so perfectly made to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter and beauty; he has given us the capacity to form deep loving relationships as parents and children, as friends and lovers; and God has even given us his only Son to show us the way to his kingdom, the way of self-sacrifice which leads through the cross. When times are bad we may pray to God with desparate intensity, but when times are good we are inclined to forget to be grateful. On Sundays we recite automatically the words ‘Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us’, but how many of us ever offer even a silent grace before meals, I wonder?

Jesus saw that the one who came back was a Samaritan. ‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’, he says.

As an ethnic group the Samaritans were heretics - they did not behave, or believe, or worship as the Jews did – they were ritually unclean. They were disliked and despised by their Jewish neighbours – somewhat as many Irish people dislike and despise immigrants or travellers today. But Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson by drawing their attention to this particular outsider, who was the only one to turn back, praise God for his healing and thank Jesus. And Jesus publicly blessed him, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Jesus is never dismissive of people who are different in race, culture or faith, and we should not be either, if we are to claim the right to call ourselves Christians. We can have much to learn from those who are different – those of us who were at Monday’s celebration of Creation Flourishing might reflect on the lesson about joy in worship which Suma and Priya from India taught us in their traditional dance of praise and thanksgiving.

Jeremiah (29:1,4-7) gives the exiles in Babylon some good advice in today’s OT reading.
Let me summarise it. Get on with your lives; build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have children. But also, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Others at the time were stirring up the Jewish people to rebel against the Babylonians. But history shows that Jeremiah was wise. It seems the Jews did as he advised, they prospered in Babylon and retained their identity, so that some 70 years later, after Babylon in turn had been overthrown by the Persians, their descendents were able to return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple.

It is good advice for migrants everywhere. It is good advice for the New Irish that we have brought to our country. And it is good advice for the many Irish people who will likely be forced by the economic crash to emigrate over the next few years. Our children and young relatives may well be among them - how heartbreaking it will be for them and for us. But let us pray that they may build good lives in their new communities and work for them to flourish, because if their new communities flourish, so will they.

The majority of us, though, will stay in Ireland to cope with what looks likely to be a long recession. We are shocked and angered by recent revelations of economic mismanagement. The economic landscape has changed. The future will not be one of ever-growing material prosperity as we expected just 2 or 3 years ago. We know much will have to change, but we do not yet see clearly what and how. We are scared by the uncertainty. And we risk falling into a communal psychological depression which would prevent us addressing the real problems we face.

In a way we are like internal exiles in our own country.
Jeremiah’s advice is good for us as well:
  • Get on with your lives, he says. We must not look back at what we feel we have lost, but instead look forward.
  • Build houses and live in them, he says. Well, we won’t need to build much soon, but what we should do is to seek new uses for the ghost estates, the offices, the commercial properties and factories lying empty all over Ireland. We must adapt them for fruitful purposes.
  • Plant gardens and eat what they produce, he says. We are blessed in Ireland with bountiful renewable resources: our land and seas, energy from wind, ocean and geothermal heat, skilled people and vibrant culture. Let us use them productively – they will feed us like gardens.
  • Marry and have children, he says. Ordinary human life can and must continue – let us use our capacity for deep loving relationships as parents, children, friends and lovers, to support and care for one another.
  • But also, says Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Let us strive to build a just and sustainable society for the future, because only in such a society can we all flourish.
And as recovery comes - which it will, thank God - let us behave like the grateful Samaritan and remember to turn back, to praise God, and to give thanks for all he has given us.

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